I never liked Seinfeld’s TV show but I admire how hard he works at his job:
Seinfeld’s shows last a little over an hour, but he has about two hours of material in active rotation, so he’s able to swap in different bits on different nights. There is a contemporary vogue for turning over an entire act rapidly: tossing out jokes wholesale, starting again from zero to avoid creative stasis. Louis C.K. has made this practice nearly synonymous with black-belt stand-up. Seinfeld wants no part of it. “This ‘new hour’ nonsense — I can’t do it,” he said. “I wanna see your best work. I’m not interested in your new work.” C.K., who used to open for Seinfeld, has called him “a virtuoso — he plays it like a violin,” and the two are friendly. I asked Seinfeld if he thought C.K.’s stand-up hours, widely praised, would improve if he spent more than a year honing each one. “It’s not really fair for me to judge the way somebody else approaches it,” Seinfeld replied. “I care about a certain level of detail, but it’s personal. He would get bored of it. It’s not his way. It’s a different sensibility.” There was another big difference between the two, Seinfeld noted: “Working clean.” Almost from the beginning, Seinfeld has forsworn graphic language in his bits, dismissing it as a crutch. “Guys that can use any word they want — if I had that weapon, I’ll give you a new hour in a week,” he said.
Developing jokes as glacially as he does, Seinfeld says, allows for breakthroughs he wouldn’t reach otherwise. He gave me an example. “I had a joke: ‘Marriage is a bit of a chess game, except the board is made of flowing water and the pieces are made of smoke,’ ” he said. “This is a good joke, I love it, I’ve spent years on it. There’s a little hitch: ‘The board is made of flowing water.’ I’d always lose the audience there. Flowing water? What does he mean? And repeating ‘made of’ was hurting things. So how can I say ‘the board is made of flowing water’ without saying ‘made of’? A very small problem, but I could hear the confusion. A laugh to me is not a laugh. I see it, like at Caltech when they look at the tectonic plates. If I’m in the dark up there and I can just listen, I know exactly what’s going on. I know exactly when their attention has moved off me a little.
“So,” he continued, “I was obsessed with figuring that out. The way I figure it out is I try different things, night after night, and I’ll stumble into it at some point, or not. If I love the joke, I’ll wait. If it takes me three years, I’ll wait.” Finally, in late August, during a performance, the cricket cage snapped into place. “The breakthrough was doing this”— Seinfeld traced a square in the air with his fingers, drawing the board. “Now I can just say, ‘The board is flowing water,’ and do this, and they get it. A board that was made of flowing water was too much data. Here, I’m doing some of the work for you. So now I’m starting to get applause on it, after years of work. They don’t think about it. They just laugh.”
And you’ll like this:
I met him later in his dressing room at the Riverside, where he was about to take the stage for a 10 p.m. performance. His jacket hung from a rack in the corner, and he was on a couch in shirt sleeves, dipping pretzels into a Skippy jar, watching the Yankees game, feeling good. Schiff, his opener, was there, too. A car commercial featuring Shaquille O’Neal came on. “Look at this horrible sweater they put him in,” Seinfeld said. “You can see how his knees are hurting him when he comes down those stairs.” O’Neal called the car stylish. “ ‘Stylish?’ ” Seinfeld repeated. “With your sweater vest on?” The game resumed, and Ichiro Suzuki, the lean Yankees outfielder, approached the plate. “This is the guy I relate to more than any athlete,” Seinfeld said. “His precision, incredible precision. Look at his body type — he’s made the most of what he has. He’s the hardest guy to get out. He’s fast. And he’s old.”